Tracey Emin, bad girl of UK art, 'slowly' catching up to her age

Nina Larson
Tracey Emin is one of Britain's most famous living artists (AFP Photo/Joe Klamar)

Tracey Emin is one of Britain's most famous living artists

Tracey Emin is one of Britain's most famous living artists (AFP Photo/Joe Klamar)

Basel (Switzerland) (AFP) - British artist Tracey Emin seems stressed and ruffled as she weaves through crowds of deep-pocketed collectors to reach three of her pieces on prominent display at Art Basel.

"It's a trade fair, isn't it? People are shopping," she told AFP in an interview at the largest contemporary art fair on the planet, which opened to the public Thursday.

Emin, one of Britain's most famous living artists, said showing her work at the Lehmann Maupin gallery booth at Basel, inside halls teeming with art enthusiasts and investors, was very different to exhibiting in dedicated museums and galleries.

"It's heightened commerciality on an extreme level. You've got billionaires and millionaires and art lovers that are getting in from all over the world, and they have come here to buy art," she said.

A vast array of artworks by 20th century masters like Picasso, Calder and Warhol, mixed in with today's cutting edge creations are on display across 284 galleries at the fair.

The 51-year-old artist, who entered the art scene more than two decades ago as part of the wild Young British Artists movement, says she thinks investing in art is a good thing -- "much better than buying other things, like gold bars."

But investment in art just to turn a buck is something she has no patience for.

"I don't like flippers. I don't like people who buy the work and then flip it. I've no respect for them whatsoever," she said.

Emin, known for her raw openness and often sexually provocative works, said attending Art Basel, where she is set to be honoured on Saturday, "is absolutely exhausting," forcing her to face crowds of fans and hop from reception to party.

- Confident and strong -

But fairs have a clear advantage too, she said.

"It's really brilliant at fairs because you can stand behind people and hear what they are saying," she said, nodding towards a couple studying an embroidery of her crotch.

"I'm instantly recognisable, and it's really great when they turn around and they see me," she said with a wry smile.

"If they say something nice, then it's good, but if it's negative, then it's a lot of fun for me, I can assure you. I am very confident and strong about my work, so it doesn't really get to me, but it's good fun."

Lehmann Maupin has already sold three Emin pieces at Art Basel, including a large bronze sculpture of a couple kissing passionately, called "The Heart Has Its Reasons", for around £120,000 ($190,500, 167,200 euros).

Her most famous work is perhaps "My Bed", a 1998 installation consisting of a rumpled bed surrounded by the intimate debris of empty bottles of vodka, cigarette packets and condoms, which sold at auction last year for $3.8 million.

That piece is currently showing at Tate Britain, alongside six of her recent figure drawings and two oil paintings by Francis Bacon.

Emin also has around 50 of her often highly sexualised works on display at Vienna's Leopold Museum, alongside 15 similar, if tamer drawings and poems by Egon Schiele, one of her great inspirations.

She said she was also planning a show alongside another one of her influences, Norwegian master Edvard Munch, in 2019, and "there's a possibility of Rodin."

"It's all going into place," she said.

Emin admits that her previous "bad girl" image has shifted over the years as she has become a staple of the art world establishment.

"Things have to change. I can't carry on as I was when I was 28. It's impossible," she said.

"I'm buying full-piece swimsuits now. I bought myself a leaf collector the other day, so I'm slowly catching up with my age," she said.

Regardless of her age or where she is in the world, Emin said she always brought her water colours and sketch books with her.

"Wherever I am, I'm always working," she said.